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Terror by Night

Terror by Night
1946 / B&W & Colorized / 1:37 flat full frame / 60 min. / Street Date September 6, 2005 / 9.98
Starring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mobray
Cinematography Maury Gertsman
Art Direction John B. Goodman, Abraham Grossman
Film Editor Saul A. Goodkind
Written by Frank Gruber from stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Produced by Howard Benedict, Roy William Neill
Directed by Roy William Neill

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A pretty minor Sherlock Holmes outing, Terror by Night offers modest entertainment from generic whodunnit material. This new DVD from 'Key' video is another combo B&W and colorized offering from the Legend company, that did The Great Rupert a couple of years back and passed it off as a Christmas movie. This release is less offensive. Terror by Night isn't a horror film, but that misleading title is the fault of the original producers, not the new packagers.


Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson (Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce) are hired to guard the Star of Rhodesia on a train, in the possession of its owner, Lady Margaret Carstairs (Mary Forbes). When Holmes sees that Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey) is on board, ostensibly on holiday, he knows that the diamond's presence is probably known to many, including notorious lieutenants of the nefarious Professor Moriarity. When it disappears, Holmes must play a cat-and mouse murder and theft game with a limited number of suspects.

There isn't a lot to be said about Terror by Night, a title that doesn't go well with this tepid train-bound mystery. The familiar Rathbone and Bruce characterizations are practically the whole show, with Dennis Hoey's Lestrade even more uselessly incompetent than usual.

The mechanical plot takes place in three or four sets: a coffin shop, a train station and a pair of railway cars. Plenty of stock shots of trains, model trains and train station platform atmospherics are cut into the soup; it's a rear-process show all the way.

While juggling various red herring characters, Holmes plays switcheroo with the diamond in question and figures out the secret of a trap compartment in a coffin being shipped by rail. Most of the film is made up of interviews with the various suspects, followed by loudly-stated debate over who could or couldn't be the killer-thief. It's the kind of movie where people discuss things only a few paces away from other people, and we're all supposed to believe that the conversations aren't overheard.

The suspects are such a poor lot -- angry professor (Frederick Worlock), sultry mystery woman (Renee Godfrey) -- that suspicion immediately goes to the obvious culprit - a neutral 'pal' character who also gets rather high billing among the cast. Nobody would eeev-ver guess it's that guy.

There's some okay action, and a surprise appearance by the colorful actor Skelton Knaggs, who had a pivotal role in Val Lewton's The Ghost Ship. The best scene is when Watson decides to go sleuthing on his own and proves himself a total imbecile. It's amusing only because we enjoy his characterization so much. Nigel Bruce also pairs off nicely with Alan Mowbray, an old Army chum.

Terror by Night has a trick ending that might fool those under ten years old. The rest of us need to remember that these serialized B-thrillers were ground out like TV episodes, and not expected to be the epitome of sophistication.

Key Video's DVD of Terror by Night has a package designed identically to Fox discs, so nobody should be fooled here. The B&W transfer is excellent, with a sharp and well-defined image. The alternate colorized version is a sloppy mess even by colorized standards. One of the very first shots has a train worker walking across the screen. His bottom half is the color of the boxes and floor, and his top half matches the background behind him. The image is soft and lo-con to optimize the colorization, but whatever process they've used, it's poorer than earlier work from the 90s. Faces, woodwork and food tends to be orangey brown, and everything else blah green or rusty red. Exterior stock shots are often just left B&W.

As with The Great Rupert, Legend gives us a short stack of original 1946 credits (four names) while reserving a longer list (8 names) of 'color producers', a 'creative director', a 'production director', 'associate designers' and a 'technical director.' Both that and the lengthy extra credit role (showing that the real labor was farmed out to India) reveal what a shoddy enterprise this is. Recopyrighting an old film for profit is one thing, but playing make-believe games with puffed-up credits is another. Shame on Key, Fox or whoever for encouraging this.

The final verdict is that for a great price Holmes fans and completists will find an excellent original B&W version of the film. It's a lot more pleasing to watch, even if one doesn't care about the colorization issue one way or another.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Terror by Night rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent (B&W) Poor (Colorized)
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: promos for other Holmes features
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 1, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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